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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

TWD: Coconut Butter Thins

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Working your way through an entire cookbook, recipe by recipe can be a tricky business. Especially, when someone else is choosing the recipes for you! Sometimes, you're delighted by what you end up with - and sometimes, not. While Dorie's Coconut Butter Thins do contain several ingredients that I love - butter, coconut, lime, macadamia nuts and ground coriander - I didn't really love them in this cookie. Don't get me wrong, I LIKED the cookies. I just didn't LOVE them.

Coconut Butter Thins are supposed to be thin, crispy and lacy shortbread-like cookies. And mine were. But to me, the flavors were so subtle that they were virtually undetectable. I got no sunny pop of lime or scent of coriander. Nor did I find much crunch of macadamia nuts. I did get some chewiness from the coconut, but mostly in the annoying shreds that peeked out from my neatly cut cookie shapes. They were a nice little unassuming cookie that would probably be great paired with something else, but without much personality of their own.

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I also think that there's a reason that there is no accompanying photo of these cookies in the book. My cookies were just not very photogenic. When baked, they flattened out and spread a bit so that their edges blurred. I made one sheet of cookies cut into squares as Dorie directs in the recipe. Once out of the oven, they took on a kind of stretchy, Dali-esque quality. I cut the next batch into rounds which held their shape better, but not much. To be fair, I do think that I rolled my cookies a little too thin. I don't know how much that affected the shape, if at all.

I'm sorry, Dorie! You know I love you. But, these just didn't do it for me the way so many of your other fantastic recipes have.

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Thanks to Jayne from The Barefoot Kitchen Witch for choosing our recipe for this week. If you'd like to see how the rest of the TWD gang fared with these Coconut Butter Thins, check out the Tuesdays with Dorie blogroll.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Dinner and a Movie: Moonstruck Roundup

moonstruck

Moonstruck is a delightful and endearing romantic comedy about love and life set in New York City's Italian-American community. In it, Loretta Castorini, (brilliantly played by Cher), an unlucky in love Italian widow (her first husband was hit by a bus) finds romance through the intervention of la bella luna. With her second wedding to stodgy mama's boy, Johnny Cammareri, just weeks away, she meets and reluctantly falls hopelessly in love with her fiance's estranged younger brother, Ronny! Her dilemma and her hilariously eccentric family make for an unforgettably enchanting and irresistible movie experience.

moonstruck

I chose Moonstruck for this month's Dinner and a Movie, first and foremost, because I love it. I love it not only for its abundant humor, warmth and charm, but also because of its rich ethnic flavor and pervasive theme that love and family are the most important things in life and are meant to be celebrated with gusto! And, there is a helluva lot of gusto going on in that movie!

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As an Italian-American from the Bronx, watching Moonstruck is an emotional experience for me. I can really identify with it. In fact, several of the characters could have come straight out of my own family album! Each time I watch it, a comforting wave of familiarity and understanding washes over me. In the final scene, where the music swells and the camera pans to all of the old family photos, I always spill a few tears.

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Another reason that I love this movie is for its beautiful music, much of which is taken from Puccini's glorious opera, La Boheme. According to both Norman Jewison and John Patrick Shanley, the director and screenwriter of the film, Moonstruck was always intended to have an operatic feel from its conception. Jewison specifically envisioned La Boheme because he felt that its music was the perfect vehicle to enhance the various dramatic, comedic and romantic elements of the film. It worked. Imagine Moonstruck without Puccini's music. It just wouldn't be the same!

Remember this scene? It's the one where Ronny takes Loretta to the opera for the first time to see La Boheme at The Met. Loretta is moved to tears as the singers perform the beautiful duet, Donde Lieta Usci. I think it is one of the most compelling in the whole movie.

Italian opera was the inspiration for my dish, Pasta alla Norma. Pasta alla Norma is a divine concoction of eggplant, onions, tomatoes, basil and ricotta salata, a semi-hard salted ricotta cheese, served over pasta. Legend has it that this classic Sicilian dish was named for Vincenzo Bellini's popular bel canto opera, Norma, which premiered in 1831 at La Scala.

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The most famous and memorable Norma of all time was Maria Callas, with eighty-nine stage performances of the opera under her belt. If you look closely at my photos, you can see a picture of La Divina, herself, as Norma in a 1950 production at La Fenice in Venice.

There are many variations of Pasta alla Norma, but the essentials of the dish are pretty much the same. The traditional preparation is with fried eggplant, although I've seen recipes where the eggplant is roasted. I made the fried version because it is more authentic and.....what the hell? How often do I fry eggplant?

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Pasta alla Norma
(Printable Recipe)

Ingredients:

2 large globe eggplants, diced into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, small dice
4-6 garlic cloves, sliced
1 teaspoon-1tablespoon hot chili flakes, according to taste
One 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, crushed
2 sprigs fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound pasta of your choice (I used rigatoni)
6-8 ounces ricotta salata, crumbled or thickly grated
Handful of fresh basil leaves, torn or sliced for garnish

Directions:

Place the diced eggplant in a large colander with a plate underneath it and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt. Place another plate on top of the eggplant and let stand for 30-45 minutes. Remove the eggplant and dry thoroughly with a paper towel.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and saute until soft and translucent, about 7-8 minutes. Add the garlic and chili flakes for the last minute or two until fragrant.

Add the tomatoes and basil sprigs to the saucepan. Bring to a healthy simmer, lower heat to medium-low and simmer covered for 20 minutes. Uncover and continue to simmer for about 15-20 minutes more, or until sauce thickens. Add salt and pepper if needed.

While sauce is simmering, cook the pasta and the eggplant. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente.

In a large skillet heat, the 1/2 cup olive oil over medium high heat until almost smoking. Add the eggplant in batches and fry until golden brown, about 5-8 minutes. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels. Set aside.

To serve, toss the pasta with the tomato sauce. Top with the eggplant. Sprinkle the ricotta salata over the top and garnish with the sliced basil.

Enjoy!

And, now for the Roundup:

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Maryann from Finding La Dolce Vita believes that an Italian movie needs Italian Popcorn! So, she sent over this "Italianized" version. Popped in olive oil and tossed with Italian herbs, spices and Parmesan cheese, this looks like the perfect tasty snack to curl up on the couch with! Thanks, Maryann!

pasta&ceci

Lola from Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino sent over her Mamma’s Pasta e Ceci. Lola says "This dish is a family legacy, and since most of the comedy’s dialogue scenes take place with the family gathered around the kitchen table, and Grandpa dispensing wisdom and humor with each bite, I wished to honor that homey Italian family tradition by contributing with my mother’s famed Pasta e Ceci soup."

Thank you Lola! We're honored that you've shared a treasured family recipe with us!

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This delicious looking Peppers and Cheese Focaccia comes from Andreas of Delta Kitchen. Andreas says that his dish was inspired by the Italian bakery in the movie. Don't you just love those vibrant colors? Thanks, Andreas!

Moonegg

Holly from Food and Entertaining - Holly Hadsell - El Hajji calls her dish Moonegg. She loves all the food scenes in Moonstruck and it was hard for her to make one choice. She decided on this egg dish because it was the first time she had seen anything like it. Great choice, Holly. It looks mighty tasty! Thanks for sending it over!

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My incredibly talented and creative co-host, Marc from No Recipes contributed his take on "Pasta Fazool". Marc's inspiration for his dish was the opening song in the movie. He says, "The movie opens to the song That's Amore which mentions Pasta Fazool in one of it's verses. Watching the movie, it's a dish I could totally
see showing up on the Castorini's dinner table."

You're so right, Marc. Your Pasta Fazool, itsa maka me drool! Thank for sharing this with us!

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These luscious Italian Wedding Cupcakes came from Lisa of My Own Sweet Thyme. Lisa says that like the movie itself, these Italian Wedding Cupcakes have a dark sweetness, tempered by a tart glow and a nutty texture that is Oh, So Good! I completely agree, Lisa. They look amazing! Thanks!

Steak-diane-Zabeena

Zabeena from A Lot on My Plate sent over not one, but TWO great dishes! The first, Steak Diane, was actually inspired by that big, beautiful full moon. Zabeena says that the effect of a full moon plays an important role in the film - "she brings the woman to the man" - she referring to Roman Moon goddess Luna. Another moon goddess is Diana, hence Steak Diane. A steak was, of course, also particularly fitting because it is what Loretta cooks for Ronny in the film when they first meet. (I love the way that girl thinks!)

Ciabatta-eggs-Zabeena

Zabeena's other dish, Ciabatta Breakfast Starter, was inspired by the kitchen scene where Rose cooks Loretta up some eggs in the hole for breakfast.

Both Dishes look fabulous! Thanks, Zabeena!

Shrimp-Pasta-Valli

"Moonstruck is not exactly a film about food... it's mostly about love, family and starting over again. But because Nicolas Cage plays a one-handed baker named Ronnie Cammareri and there are subsequently many scenes of his bakery, I think Moonstruck still counts as a food movie." explains Bellini Valli from More Than Burnt Toast. So, in honor of the movie and the baker, she has sent over her Pasta Shells with Shrimp and Garlicky Bread Crumbs - a Parmesan and a lemon anchovy pasta salad with shrimp. Sounds absolutely divine, Val. Thanks for sharing it with us!

Pat from Mille Fiori Favorati was born and bred in Brooklyn, not far from Brooklyn Heights and Carroll Gardens, where much of Moonstruck was filmed. She feels that the movie portrays a true slice of Brooklyn life.

Baccala-Florentine-MilleFiori

Pat says, "Because I think Moonstruck's Johnny Cammareri was a "baccala" --which is also known as an Italian slang word for a less than smart person -- for letting Loretta's love slip from his life in the movie to his brother Ronny, I prepared my version of "Baccala Florentine" as my dinner recipe."

I hope that you've enjoyed this month's installment of Dinner and a Movie. I've certainly had a great time putting it together for you. Stay tuned for details about next month's movie. Marc gets to choose, and I'm sure it will be another great one!

By the way, I also wanted to mention that some of these great screenshots came from Echte Tunus of Movie Screenshots. You should check out his site. He does really nice work!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Daring Bakers, Italian-Style: Lasagne Verdi al Forno (and Moonstruck Reminder)

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Buon giorno, amici! It's Daring Bakers time again, and this month my colleagues and I are channeling our inner Italian Nonnas. We've replaced our vanilla beans with spinach, our buttercream with béchamel and our ganache with ragu. We've made lasagne, and lots of it, from scratch - including the pasta. It's challenges like this one that put the "daring" in Daring Bakers!

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

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Lasagne is one of those dishes that lends itself to many different interpretations. Even within Italy, it varies from region to region, usually based upon ingredients commonly found in each. In the southern part of the country, lasagne would most likely include a tomato-based sauce, ricotta cheese and fresh mozzarella. The classic lasagne of Emilia-Romagna uses only Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, a meat-based Bolognese sauce and nutmeg flavored béchamel sauce. It should also be made with pasta verdi, or green pasta sheets, which is egg pasta with added spinach.

I have to say that I was really excited when I learned about this challenge. My dog-eared copy of The Splendid Table is one of my favorite cookbooks. I've actually even made this lasagne before, although I must confess that I bought my pasta verdi from my local Italian market. I do own a pasta maker, but it's a real pain to use. It is the old-fashioned kind that you have screw onto the counter and crank by hand. My counter tops have rounded edges and the darn thing is always falling off.

After a few minutes of fretting about how I was going to get that pasta made, I had a light bulb moment.

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My mother has one of these fancy schmancy electric pasta machines! Isn't it pretty? Hmmm. I thought I'd just give her a call and ask if she like to make some lasagne with me. And, guess what? She did. Problem solved!

So, last Sunday I shopped for our ingredients, loaded up the car with all of my props, camera gear and assorted other stuff and drove the four blocks over to Mom's. Yes, I said four blocks. What? You didn't think I was going to haul all of that crap over there on my bicycle, did you?

As I was heading out, I got a call from my best girlfriend, Susan. She wanted to know if I could photograph something for her, so I told her to meet me at Mom's and she could help us make some lasagne. While Susan was on her way over, she got a call from our other best girlfriend, Amanda. Before I could say Bolognese, Amanda was on her way over to help too!

The girls showed up with lots of enthusiasm and bottles of champagne. They are fabulousness personified! We laughed, we toasted (not Mom), we gossiped, we took lots of pictures and we made some killer lasagne! From start to finish, the whole process took about eight hours! The time kind of flew by, though, because we were really enjoying ourselves. In fact, we had so much fun, we've decided to make it a monthly event. So, each month, we'll pick a recipe, meet at someone's house and cook, drink and eat! Hopefully, I'll be able to share it all with you here.

Here are Mom's hands, chopping up the spinach for the pasta verdi. (She's a little camera shy. It must run in the family.)

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Here's Amanda and me rolling out the pasta sheets.

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I look a little blurry because Susan took the shot with a champagne glass in one hand and her cell phone in the other. Did I mention she is a high-powered business woman?

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Aren't our pasta sheets the prettiest color green? I was so thrilled at how perfect they turned out! And, check out this gorgeous, rich and meaty ragu!

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Here's Mom pretending to be "The Flash". She kept moving around so much, that I couldn't get a decent shot of her. (I told you she was camera shy. Or maybe I had one too many glasses of champagne.)

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While our lasagne was baking, we turned the leftover pasta sheets into tagliatelle. Now, doesn't THAT look good?

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Aaah! Just look at that magnificent hunk of lasagne in all its oozey glory! Let me tell you, it was as wonderful as it looks!

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Even the Little Guy wanted in.

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Many thanks to Mary, Melinda and Enza for choosing such a terrific recipe for us this month! It wasn't the typical DB challenge, but it was a great change of pace. If you'd like to see a bazillion more lasagne dishes, head on over to the Daring Bakers Blogroll. Then, check out our brand new gorgeous web site: http://thedaringkitchen.com/. (You might even find a little something about moi there.)

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Method
Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:

Equipment

A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

Kneading:
With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colors. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)

Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours

Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 ml)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Working Ahead:
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.

Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull gray but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.

Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.

Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.

Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

***Dinner and a Movie Reminder***

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I also want to remind you that this month's Dinner and a Movie day is tomorrow, March 28. This month's movie is Moonstruck, which should provide lots of inspiration. If you'd like to participate, you can find the details here or here. I hope that you'll join us!

Chermoonstruck

Thursday, March 26, 2009

See What See's Has Hatched for Easter and Toffee-ette Tortoni

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Last December, in a mad dash to beat the Christmas Rush, I stumbled upon an interesting new kiosk in one of our local malls. The kiosk was filled products from a company called See's Candies.

See's Candies???

Ahem......It goes without saying that I had to stop and investigate. Here's what I found out.

See's Candies is a manufacturer and distributor of candy, primarily chocolate, in the western United States. It was founded by Charles See and his mother Mary See in Los Angeles, California, in 1921. The company is now headquartered in South San Francisco, California. See's Candies is famous for its delicious and diverse roster of products, which it largely markets only in its own stores, as well as in kiosks at malls and other shopping centers in select markets around the country and abroad.

The friendly See's ladies in their signature black and white uniforms were very helpful and were nice enough to let me try out a few samples while I was there. Thanks to them, I also learned that See's produces some pretty freakin' awesome chocolate! Of course, I left that day with a shopping bag full of little chocolate somethings for everyone on my list.

toffee-ettes

I hot-footed it back to the mall after the Holidays to stock up on some more of See's delicious chocolate, especially my new best friend: Toffee-ettes. Toffee-ettes are irresistible bite-size pieces of rich butter toffee with almonds, which are smothered in See's creamy milk chocolate and then covered with bits of toasted almonds. They are To. Die. For. Alas, when I got to the mall, the kiosk was gone. And, so was all of the chocolate. I was majorly bummed!

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Imagine my delight when, a few weeks ago, I received an email from a rep at See's asking me if I was interested in sampling some of their chocolate, and perhaps using it in a recipe. Do I even need to tell you what my response was?

OMG, YES!!! PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, SEND CHOCOLATE!!! YEEEESSSSSSS!!!!

And, they did.

A few days ago, a box of my beloved Toffee-ettes was delivered to me, me, me! After I safely hid them in the back of my pantry behind the pickled beets, I sat down to figure out a recipe to use them in.

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At first, I thought of a toffee ice cream. But, my friend, Chocolatechic, had already beaten me to it with a lovely Victoria Toffee Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream. I also remembered that I had made my own version of toffee ice cream several months ago. So, as much as I love ice cream, I decided to go another way. I still wanted to make a frozen dessert, so I adapted my Tortoni recipe and made Toffee-ette Tortoni. What a great idea THAT was!

My Toffee-ette Tortoni was scrumdiddleyumptious! It was creamy and crunchy and chocolatey and almondy all at the same time. And, it is a snap to whip up. Aside from the freezing, it took me less than 20 minutes to make them. You have really got to try these!

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Toffee-ette Tortoni
(Printable Recipe)

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup sliced almonds
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups Toffee-ettes
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 quart homemade or premium quality vanilla ice cream, softened
Maraschino cherries, drained and halved for garnish

Directions:

Melt butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the almonds and sugar and saute until almonds are lightly browned and caramelized, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool. When cooled, break almond mixture up into small bits.

Crush the Toffee-ettes into small nuggets. You can do this by putting them in a zip lock bag and smacking them with a rolling pin or meat mallet. Be careful not to turn them into crumbs. Place the crumbled candy in a bowl and toss with the cooled almonds. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whip cream with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Spoon the candy mixture into the whipped cream, reserving 3/4 cup or so for topping.

Add the almond extract to the softened ice cream and stir until blended and very smooth. Fold candy/whipped cream mixture into ice cream.

Spoon into little pastry cups or ramekins. Sprinkle each cup with some of the reserved candy mixture and top with a cherry. Freeze until firm.

Makes about 1 quart of Tortoni mixture.

Enjoy!

The folks at See's also asked me if I would let you all know about their recently released line of Easter candies. With the promise of free Toffee-ettes, how could I refuse? Check out their complete selection of Easter candy for yourself. They have everything from jelly beans to chocolate bunnies and then some. I'm particularly partial to their Scotchmallow Eggs, a combination of smooth caramel and fluffy honey marshmallow, covered with rich dark chocolate.

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(Don't they look great?)

Or, how about these fresh, fruity Springtime Truffles, which are raspberry and lemon truffles covered in creamy white chocolate, and topped with delicate pastel flowers. Mmmmm!

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These Hollow Eggs with Novelty are hollow milk chocolate eggs with an adorable little white chocolate chick hidden inside. How cute are they?

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If you're looking for some fun and fabulous treats this Easter season, look no further than See's Candies. You won't be disappointed. Would I ever steer you wrong?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rest in Peace, Sweet Maria

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Oh Dear Readers, you have no idea how much I hate writing posts like this. Yet, I find myself doing it way too often. My heart is heavy today and it probably will be for a long time. And I hope that, if you'll allow me the indulgence of getting it off my chest, I might be able to make some sense of it.

You see, I lost a dear friend on Saturday. Another bright and vibrant young life devoured by cancer. Many of you may remember last May, when I year told you about our legal assistant and good friend, Maria's cancer diagnosis. Doctors found that she had a precariously positioned tumor in her neck, wrapped around her jugular vein. Conventional surgery wasn't an option.

The next ten months were a harrowing and painful journey for her. There was chemo and radiation, and more chemo and more radiation. There were two CyberKnife procedures, a highly sophisticated robotic radiosurgery system used to attempt to reduce or eliminate certain lesions and tumors in the body that are otherwise considered inoperable. The tumor had crushed Maria's vocal cords, so there was reconstructive surgery and speech therapy as well.

The second CyberKnife procedure was considered to be very successful. Finally, there was a small sliver of light at the end of a dark and miserable tunnel. Things were starting to look up for Maria. Then, the unthinkable happened.

Two weeks ago, Maria began having a lot more pain than usual. She was also having trouble with her vision. After undergoing some tests, her doctors told her that there was now a large tumor on her brain. They also said that they thought they could get it all. She was immediately scheduled for more surgery. But, by the time they got in there, that f*%#ing devil cancer had already taken over. There was nothing more they could do, except send her home to wait.

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Maria died early Saturday morning. She was only forty-one years old. She was gentle and kind and warm and smart and funny. She was incredibly beautiful, inside and out. She was an angel among us.

Rest in peace, sweet Maria. Thank God, your suffering is finally over. We love you and will miss you more than you'll ever know.

Rest-in-Peace

Friday, March 20, 2009

Chicken Pepperoncini for Bloggeraid

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About six months ago, a very industrious and passionate trio of bloggers organized an international consortium of even more bloggers and Bloggeraid was born. According to founders, Ivy from Kopiaste, Val from More Than Burnt Toast and Giz of Equal Opportunity Kitchen, Bloggeraid is "a growing group of international food bloggers determined to make a difference in aid of world famine. The love of food and community that brings us together drives the compassion of its members to reach out to our world to help those less fortunate than we are. Banded by a mission of helping to make a change in a world where starvation affects such a profound number of people, we will raise money and awareness for the hungry in communities both at home and abroad."

Pretty amazing, huh? Did I not tell you that these three ladies were industrious and passionate? Back in January, Ivy, Val and Giz announced that Bloggeraid will be publishing a cookbook with 100% of the profit from sales being directed to the School Meals program of The World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations frontline agency.

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Why School Meals? Well, in countries where school attendance is low, the promise of at least one nutritious meal each day boosts enrollment and promotes regular attendance. Parents are motivated to send their children to school instead of keeping them at home to work or care for siblings. In the poorest parts of the world, a school meals program can double primary school enrollment in one year. Among the key beneficiaries are girls, who otherwise may never be given the opportunity to learn.

The WFP School Meals program primarily involves providing nutritious in-school meals. However, in its "take-home ration" projects, WFP also provides basic food items, often including a sack of rice and a can of cooking oil, to families who send their daughters to school.

The Bloggeraid cookbook is targeted for sale on Amazon by November/December 2009, and all bloggers have been invited to contribute their favorite recipes to this effort.

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I'm very happy to be a member of Bloggeraid, and even happier that I am able to contribute a recipe for the cause. This Chicken Pepperoncini is one of the first dishes that I learned to prepare after I was married. Both my mother and grandmother used to make it a lot and it has always been very popular with my family.

In case you're wondering what pepperoncini are, they're a small, bright green variety of sweet pepper in the Capsicum annuum family. They are also known as Tuscan peppers, sweet Italian peppers and golden Greek peppers. Pepperoncini are mild, but zesty, with a slight heat to them. They are commonly pickled and sold in jars, which is how I used them in this dish.

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The recipe is not a complicated one. Sliced onions, garlic and fresh mushrooms are sauteed with chicken. After which, the ingredients are braised in some white wine, chicken broth and pepperoncini juice. Then, the pepperoncini, themselves are added to the mix and simmered a little bit more. The original recipe uses a whole cut up chicken, but I always make this dish with boneless chicken thighs. Using boneless chicken cuts down the cooking time quite a bit. Plus, the thighs hold up well to braising without drying out.

This Chicken Pepperoncini is a zesty, hearty and very flavorful main dish. It has elements of sweet, sour, salty and spicy woven through it. The dish is warm and mellow, but leaves a little kick in the back of your throat while going down. Of course, the dish really sings when served over a huge bowl of pasta!

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If you'd like to have the recipe for my Chicken Pepperoncini, I'm afraid you'll just have to wait for the cookbook. I'm such a tease! But seriously, all of the recipe contributors have been asked not to publish their recipes before the book launch.

If YOU would also like to contribute to this wonderful and worthwhile cause, there's still time. The deadline for recipe submission is not until March 31, 2009. Hop on over to this page on the Bloggeraid web site and find out all of the details.